Oxford Stage Company Wises Up West EndDate: 17 May 1999
'Dumbing down' is to a slur levelled at many cultural outfits these days, but Mark Shenton talks to the artistic director of a regional touring company who has set its sights on doing just the opposite in the West End....
Over the past year, the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida Theatres - already major players in the capital's theatrical life - have both launched new initiatives that sees them originating new shows directly into West End playhouses. At the Comedy, the Donmar's new producing arm Warehouse Productions has revived Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, to be followed in October by a new production of Antigone (directed by Declan Donnellan). Meanwhile, at the Albery, the Almeida's revival of David Hare's Plenty concludes the company's first season in residency in the West End - a season which also saw a Racine double-bill of Phedre and Brittanicus, both starring Diana Rigg. Proof positive that, in the midst of the 'dumbing down' of our cultural life, and the commercial theatre in particular, there are at last encouraging signs that parts of the West End theatrical landscape are being 'wised up'.
And now, if more evidence were necessary, a major national touring company, the Oxford Stage Company, has come to town. In April, the company set up base at the West End's Whitehall Theatre, where its productions will play for six week seasons after the completion of their seven week countrywide tours. For Dominic Dromgoole, who joined the company as its artistic director last summer after a long stint running west London's tiny but influential Bush Theatre and a somewhat shorter one programming new plays for the Peter Hall Company's one year residency at the Old Vic, it's an opportunity to give the work they do a much higher profile, and in the process attract high quality actors.
'The whole thing is about actors,' he tells me over coffee near Paddington Station, from where he is about to commute to the company's Oxford headquarters. 'The only joy in life is working with good actors and the greatest heartbreak is working with not very good ones. Everything you do has to be geared around making sure that you end up working with good people, because I as a director am only as good as the people I work with. It's not necessarily a matter of working with stars - for Three Sisters, I've got the most extraordinary company, who are probably one of the best I've ever worked with or ever seen, and not one of them is a star in the traditional sense, but they're all very, very high quality young actors. The only way I can attract them and their agents is to say that the seven week tour will be followed by six in town at the end of it.'
Actors, sadly, no longer like to tour - they're away from other acting opportunities, agents, friends and family, but says Dromgoole, 'It's sad actors don't, because this lot have had the biggest blast on tour. They're quite a wild lot, and they've had more fun than you can imagine!' For Dromgoole himself, however, there's great appeal to working outside of the capital - 'London is a hall of mirrors, particularly in theatrical terms, and it's very attractive to be out of that mindset.'
The night before we met, Dromgoole had been to the Hampstead Theatre, to see a production by another touring outfit, English Touring Theatre, and comments: 'The previous five weeks I'd been in Northampton, Cambridge, Salisbury and Warwick, and would walk into a room with four or five hundred other people, none of whom I knew. But I went to Hampstead last night, and I literally knew half the audience!' There's sometimes a sense in London, particularly among the smaller houses, of only playing to one's peers; and it's certainly the case that for a company like English Touring Theatre (whose wonderful production of Jonathan Harvey's latest play, Hushabye Mountain Dromgoole had just seen), seasons at such intimate spaces would be the closest they ever got to bringing their work into the London spotlight.
Dromgoole's initiative with Oxford Stage Company, however, ensures that the work is being exposed to a wider potential West End audience. But, he stresses, 'The idea is not to be successful and have huge hits, because we haven't got the equipment or the armoury or the desire to do that. The idea is just to take some of the ethos and ambition and desire we had at the Bush, which was to do good and interesting work, and do it in the West End.'
But will people come? Dromgoole hopes so: 'You want people to come, of course; you want every theatre you are in to be absolutely full. That is the bottom line desire when you work in the theatre.' Then he stops and corrects himself. 'No, it's not. The first thing is that you want the work you do to be good. The second is that you want the theatre to be full. And if you get those priorities the wrong way around, which I almost did just then, then you get into a terrible mess. Hopefully, you lead with your artistic desire, and you hope that people will follow. If they don't follow, someone should tell you to go away. If you run a subsidised theatre, then the government should tell you to go away; if you run a West End theatre, your backers will tell you to go away. But you can't go into it just wanting to please people or you get stuffed, and you haven't got any self-respect either'.
Dromgoole has rejigged the company's finances to enable the West End season to happen, so that it has become its own principal backer but also suffers no financial losses at all if the productions don't attract big audiences. 'We've budgeted it so we don't have to take a single pound at the box office. We start at nought. By the same token, every single penny we make is therefore profit. Ten people in is 150 quid profit. 100 people in is £1500 profit. Anything we make is money that I can then spend on even more daring things in the future.' The opening production of the season, a revival of Robert Holman's trilogy of short plays about the effects of wartime on individuals that was originally seen at the Bush, has not done too well at the box office in commercial terms, but it also hasn't lost a penny, and the £70,000 it will have taken is therefore all profit.
Next up at the Whitehall, Dromgoole is himself directing the production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in a new version by young playwright Samuel Adamson, whose own original plays, Clocks and Whistles and Grace Notes, Dromgoole directed at the Bush and Old Vic respectively. 'It's a very sharp, very vivid, very speakable and modern translation without being needlessly chic. Most of the translations in existence are terrible: very proper, genteel and languid, with well-formed sentences that don't relate to how anyone speaks. But if you read the literal translation, that is not how it is meant to be: it should be very jagged and jumpy, with the rhythm and music of real speech, not the rhythm and music of thought. You always get thought in English translations'.
In the autumn, Oxford Stage Company will bring a revival of John Whiting's A Penny for a Song to the West End, but in between its arrival and the end of the season of Three Sisters, Dromgoole is programming in other visiting companies, kicking off with a production of a Jean Anouilh play, Eurydice. 'It's an exquisite and very beautiful and delicate production of the Anouilh play,' Dromgoole raves about the show he first saw at Battersea Arts Centre at the end of last year.
But first it's the turn of Chekhov's Three Sisters, a play which Dromgoole hopes to bring fresh insight to with his youthful cast. 'It's so overwhelmingly about love and sex and romance,' he says, 'that if you do what we have done, which is cast it young, rather than having a fifty-year-old playing younger, then all that comes naturally. You get that extraordinary vivacity and brightness coming through, and rather than twittering, neurotic birds fluttering around in a cage, they're fresh, ballsy, strong, vivid characters charging about.'
Oxford Stage Company's production of Three Sisters runs at the Whitehall to July 3. Plenty, produced by the Almeida at the Albery, runs to July 10. Suddenly Last Summer, produced by the Warehouse Productions at the Comedy, runs to July 17.